They’re widely loved for their plumpness and clumsy antics, but giant pandas lack distinguishable facial features, making it difficult for scientists and keepers to tell them apart and thus keep track of them.
Now researchers at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China have pioneered new technology that uses artificial intelligence to identify the creatures, allowing them to monitor the animals both within the sanctuary and in the wild.
Facial recognition technology used on humans and other animals such as chimpanzees is not nuanced enough to identify the giant pandas, which are considered a national symbol of China.
“They lack a distinguishable biological characteristic,” Chen Peng, a researcher at the Chengdu base, told NBC News in early July. This is due in part because of their furry faces and lack of facial expressions.
Panda identification is becoming easier thanks to a growing database of images and videos that have been analyzed in recent years to detect slight differences between the animals. Better recognizing individual pandas — and thus better understanding panda populations — can help with conservation, researchers say.
The use of AI technology can also reduce the human time and labor required to study the pandas, who mostly live alone and are scattered throughout vast bamboo forests.
Over 200,000 images and 10 terabytes of video data have been collected from over 600 pandas, both living and deceased, at the Chengdu research base so far.
Given that giant pandas mostly eat and sleep, keeping tabs on them is far from thrilling.
However, that could well be the appeal for the millions of people across the world who tune into the research base’s online platform to observe the animals.
The livestream had more than 68.5 million followers as of early July, with the large majority watching from the U.S., followed by Japan and Britain.
Many pandas have their own dedicated fan groups, made easier with a facial recognition app for pandas created with information from the AI database.
Zhan Zilin, 5, visited the Chengdu enclosure in early July to see her favorite panda, Dudu. “I love pandas because they are so cute,” she said.
Chen said his team was working to expand the tracking technology to monitor other endangered species in the wild.
“We would like to apply relevant AI technology to the intelligent monitoring of animals,” he said.
China has made significant progress in giant panda conservation, with officials reclassifying the formerly endangered species as “vulnerable” last year.
More than 600 live in captivity around the world, while around 1,800 live in the wild.
“We are all silently protecting them,” Chen said.